Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Night Strangers

By Chris Bohjalian
Crown Publishers 378 pgs
From my personal library
Rating - It'll Do and a Half

This is a weird little book. If you are familiar with Chris Bohjalian's work then this will not surprise you. He is a master at New England village life. You understand that his books could not be set anywhere else. There are hamlets in these mainly rural states that remain fairly isolated. This allows all manner of belief and behavior to take hold and hold on. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, I rather like his villages. After reading Mr. Bohjalian you will know what "mud season" is. The author has written about midwifery in the hinterlands, which is not at all like midwifery in, say, Boston. There is water dousing going on (Water Witches), transsexuals learning to stretch certain parts (yes, I know), healers and so on.

In Night Strangers we have "herbalists."

Remember Sully Sullenberger who landed his plane in the Hudson River? Geese got themselves strung in and around the engines and down went the plane. Mr. Sullenberger accomplished a truly impressive feat. Unfortunately the pilot in Strangers is not so lucky. I say "lucky" because Chip Linton did successfully land his plane in Lake Champlain, but the wash from a boat created a wave that flipped the plane and 39 passengers drowned. Because Chip has been suffering from PTSD, he is taking a few meds and has been unable to work. His wife Emily has decided that what the family needs is a change of scenery and some peace and quiet. So they buy a big old Victorian in a small village in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, and move in with their twin daughters Hallie and Garnet.

As they unpack they find odd things hidden around the house, most notably a few weapons and a square-shaped door in the basement practically welded shut by 39 6-inch carriage bolts. 39 drowned passengers and 39 bolts, hmmm...... Anyway, a few of the women in town befriend Emily. They all have these elaborate greenhouses, lots and lots of greenhouses, and call themselves "herbalists." These women seem to have some sort of gardening club going on and they use the plants to cook and for herbal remedies and stuff. So far so good. Until the Lintons notice that these women feed them a lot; they bring food to the house and invite them to dinner parties; they have the twin girls learning gardening and recipes after school. Begins with "C" and rhymes with "oven."

Meanwhile Chip is decompensating at an alarming rate. We don't know quite whether the ghosts are figments of his imagination, a result of his drug cocktail or if he is having delusions from the PTSD. I don't think it matters where the ghosts came from because perception is reality, yes? The problem with the ghosts is what they want Chip to do for them. Hard to say whether Hallie and Garnet are in more danger from their dad or the herbalists. Begins with "w" and rhymes with "hitch."

The end of Strangers is an eye-popping surprise. Maybe not a very satisfying end and by that I don't mean that it should have been a typically happy ending. Neither do I mean that there really wasn't a finale. I just mean that if you are an herbalist you will get to enjoy the story for a long, long time.

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